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Know the West

Excerpts from Hellroaring: The Life and Times of a Fire Bum


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, How the West's asbestos fires were turned into tinderboxes.

I keep an empty turtle shell on the window sill. It's discolored and peeling, but not from decay. The shell was burned over by a wildfire in Minnesota during the crackling-dry season of 1988. Its occupant was completely incinerated along with several other turtles who couldn't escape a fast-moving blaze that ripped across normally soggy ground.

It can get ugly out there. I've been poisoned by carbon monoxide in Oregon, showered with burning embers in Wyoming, spiked out in a mud puddle in Idaho, threatened by grizzlies in Montana, and I've broken through swamp ice in Minnesota. I've been burned, bruised, scraped and lacerated. I've twisted my back, blistered my feet, torn cartilage in my knee. Though never seriously injured, I acknowledge that in some cases only luck eased me through. It's often said that we make our own luck, and maybe sometimes we do, but luck is also a free, unearned gift. Those turtles were extremely unlucky.

But the vacant shell on the sill doesn't speak to the joy, to the occasional moments when firefighters understand they're among the blessed of the earth, and that all other jobs are as ashes beneath their boots.

... At age 41 I'm uncertain how many seasons I have left; the fire-ground offers no quarter, and, like an aging ballplayer, I'll probably push it too far - until some critical body part finally gives way. But I am certain of this: I don't regret a single moment spent on a fire, and when my career is done I shall pine for fire season as for a lost love. To mumble wistfully of "an old flame" will carry special meaning.

A line from the poetry of Schiller resonates in my head: "Drunk with fire, toward Heaven advancing,/ Goddess, to thy shrine we come."

From Hellroaring: The Life and Times of a Fire Bum, by Peter M. Leschak, illustrations by Mark Coyle, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc., Box 451, St. Cloud, MN 56302. Cost is $14.95 plus shipping.